In the well-trodden, Santa-saturated, redemption-obsessed world of the Christmas film, there is very little snow-covered ground that hasn’t already been well and truly sleigh ridden over.
Nowhere this is likely more true, besides the story of the baby Jesus himself, than in stories which address the origins and activities of Santa Claus aka Father Christmas aka St Nick, a figure who, thanks to the combined storytelling heft of Charles Dickens and the brilliantly-executed commercial imperatives of Coca-Cola, looms large, casting the shape of a jolly old man in red atop a sleigh full of toys and pulled by reindeer, over the crowded festive landscape.
So to have a film like Klaus, Netflix’s first original animated feature directed by Sergio Pablos from Spanish SPA Studios, make such a profound and refreshingly original impression as the English-language movie recounts the imaginatively conceived and executed beginnings of Santa Claus’s selfless reign of present-giving and child enrichment is nothing short of miraculous.
It is, in every regard, particularly as a member of a genre with more than few touchstones to reverently acknowledge and pay homage to – think the suit, the reindeer, the presents, the “Ho! Ho! Ho!”, letters, Naughty and Nice list etc etc etc – a storytelling triumph that combines lush, appealingly-rendered animation, a vivaciously-told narrative sparkling with emotional resonance and witty, crisply-delivered dialogue and a real beating sense of the redemptive possibilities of the season.
That last element is especially important in a story that takes place in the misbegotten, violence ravaged town of Smeerensburg high on the Arctic Circle where a centuries old feud (which is recounted in humorously twisted detail in one of many highly-memorable scenes) between the Krums (led by the hatred-scrunched, whip-smart intelligent Mrs Krum, voiced by Joan Cusack) and the Ellingboes (somewhat mindlessly propelled forward in hatred by Mr Ellingboe, voiced by Will Sasso) has reduced the town to a debris-strewn no-go zone.
None of this however has been recounted to reluctant new townsperson, Jesper (Jason Schwartzman), the massively spoiled and overly indulged son of the head of the country’s revered, military-like postal academy who finds himself consigned to the far northern dot on the map with strict instructions to stamp and send 6000 letters in a year and face being cut off from a life of silk sheets, butler-served everything and coffees served in dainty china.
Already unhappy with being sent off to the freezing cold, bleak surrounds of Smeerensurg and the remote, ferry-served island upon which its battle-pockmarked buildings barely stand, he is even less thrilled to discover he has effectively walked into a war zone, a place where the local schoolteacher, Alva (voiced by Rashida Jones) has given up trying to teaching the extremely naughty children anything and has gone into the fishmongering business.
She is, like everyone else, bitter and dispossessed of any hope, convinced that the town’s lot if a sorry and violent one and that there is nothing that can be done about it.
Thrown into the thick of the town’s feuding by the mischievously sarcastic actions of ferryman Mogens (Norm Macdonald), Jesper, driven purely by desperate and overriding self-interest does his best to get the townspeople to get into the letter writing and sending business but they are far too invested in ferocious battles in the town square, and in petty pranks that sees mouldering fish guts chucked onto fresh laundry and bands competing to drown each other out rather than to play music to soothe the raging masses (who, frankly, wouldn’t listen anyway).
One letter from one unhappy kid and an initially misdirected visit to a hermitic old woodsman known as Klaus (J. K. Simmons) high and deep in the island’s northern snow-deluged forest changes everything, though neither Jesper nor Klaus knows or intends that at the time.
While this may all sound very cookie cutter, sweet and awwww-inspiring run of the mill Christmas storytelling loveliness, it is delivered with a wicked sense of humour and a dementedly quirky sensibility that sees a genuinely engaging and heartfelt story delivered with enough offbeat candour and vivacity that it feels like no other Santa origin tale you’ve ever seen.
Quite how it manages to be both loopily hilarious – there is one recurring girl throughout the film whose wickedly unsettling stare and way with a carrot when it comes to implanting them in snowman is a creepy joy that will have you giggling like a fiend – and punch to the heart emotionally resonant is an impressive feat that will leave you marvelling at how clever storytelling can be in truly imaginative hands.
It won’t come as any surprise that the change that comes to the town is vastly transformative, in spite of Jesper’s initial attitudes which tend to the wilfully self-observant, and that there is considerable resistance to everything being made better and far less knifey and slingshotty, but then the genius of Klaus is that it takes a great many well-worn tropes and cliches and fashions something although wonderful and new out of them, beguiling, enchanting and highly amusing audiences in the process.
The way in which the reindeers, for instance, are brought into the mix or why Santa dresses in red are inventive and warmhearted and funny, the writers – screenplay is by Sergio Pablos, Jim Mahoney and Zach Lewis to a story by Pablos – going to great lengths to breathe fresh life into an age-old story, one which is burnished and brightened in spectacular fashion in much the same way that Smeerensburg itself gets the mother of all festive makeovers.
Besides the obvious and clever use of many of Santa Claus’s props and activities, what really gives Klaus some classic-already-made gravitas is those moments where it really lets it characters come alive in ways that feels impacting, true and highly relatable.
For all his odious, brash self-interest, Jesper is simply someone looking for a purpose, Alva for something other than a desperate escape from a town which has robbed her of her deep-seated love of teaching and positively shaping minds and Klaus for a way out of trenchant and long-lasting grief.
These characters are simply the propellor of jokes; they feel like real, flesh-and-blood people who may present as one broken thing but who really want something so much more, even if they can’t presently articulate what that is exactly.
This depth and resonance of characterisation, which is highly affecting at times, infuses the changes wrought in Smeerensburg, quite accidentally for the most part, with a real sense of humanity, of it all meaning something far grander and more important besides a nice, cosy homily at the end (which, though they are lovely in their own way, is what most Christmas films are happy to settle for).
Together with animation so fresh and vibrant it feels like you could step right into this world from your own loungeroom, and a script so funny and sharp it zings with a sense of vivacious hope and witty observation of the human condition and its capacity for selfless acts once it sees they are possible and worthwhile, Klaus is an untrammelled joy, a reminder that it is entirely within the realms of the achievable to be original and different when it comes to Christmas storytelling and to add something entirely new and hilariously life-affirming to what is, by any estimation, a very crowded field badly in need of some well-timed and judiciously-executed re-invention.